Friday, September 15, 2006
Toronto (Reuters): Smashing stigmas is a mountain of a task. But the story of a blind man who climbed the tallest mountain in the world opened the eyes of six blind teenagers in Lhasa, Tibet, and forms the subject of a gripping documentary, Blindsight, which premiered at the Toronto film festival this week to a standing ovation. "I don't feel (that since) I've climbed this mountain so I'm a superstar, a superhero," said Kyila, one of the teenagers who climbed Lhakpa Ri, a 23,000-foot peak rising beside Mount Everest. "I feel like it shows people what blind people can do, and I hope we can pass the message all over the world," she told Reuters in an interview. Blindness is a stigma in Tibet, punishment for evil deeds in a previous life. Some 30,000 of Tibet's 2.5 million inhabitants are blind or highly visually impaired.
The first school for the blind in Tibet was set up in 1998 by a German woman, Sabriye Tenberken. She invited American Erik Weihenmayer, who made history in 2001 as the first blind man to reach the summit of Mount Everest, to come to Lhasa to talk to her students and help encourage them. He did her one better. He asked if he could take them climbing. Blindsight chronicles the difficult development of the teenagers into mountain climbers, and also into confident young people. Weihenmayer brought his own team of Everest climbers. Each student was paired with an expert and training began in the spring of 2004. They would begin the trek in late September. Although motivated, the kids showed different degrees of ability. Altitude sickness struck. The weather didn't cooperate. Tension flared. And a decision had to be made about whether continuing the expedition was worth the risks. About 20 percent of the people who have tried to climb Mount Everest have died in the process. The team's goal was to reach the summit of Lhakpa Ri, but not at any cost.
For Tenberken the expedition was an emotional roller-coaster, not only because of the mountain climbing, but also because of the cultural exchange. "All of that I think was worth it hundreds of times to do it again," Tenberken said. "We don't regret any moment." For the young Tibetan climbers, the expedition was a "golden opportunity", as one of them says in the film, that has helped some of them crystallize what they want in life. One student aims to go to university and become an international translator. Another two have set up a medical massage clinic. Some want to educate other blind kids.
Tenberken and her partner, Paul Kronenberg, are constantly climbing another sort of mountain -- raising funds for various projects undertaken by their Braille Without Borders organization. Tenberken appeared on Oprah Winfrey's TV talk show last year, hoping the exposure would boost the donations on which the organization depends to fund its projects. The appearance resulted in thousands of fan letters but little money. "In a way it made it harder," Kronenberg said. "People don't believe us." The pair forge ahead. The blind are now gaining wider acceptance in Tibet, they say, so much so that some parents have tried to enroll their sighted children in the school for the blind. Now they are nearly ready to pass charge of the school to their former students, including Kyila, so that they can focus on building an international training center in Kerala in India. It is designed to train blind people how to set up training centers, similar to the one in Lhasa, in their home countries.